Combating the Legacy of Segregation in the Nation’s Capital
Peace Gwam and Mychal Cohen
Washington, DC, has experienced population and economic booms over the past two decades, but the benefits of this growth have not been equitable for long-term Black residents, who created the culture that formed the base for this revival. These residents, who remained in the city after decades of economic disinvestment, are now being displaced in part because of economic-development policies intended to restore the city’s tax base that have in practice intensified displacement and segregation in the city.
The lingering effects of explicit segregation, federal and city policies that have disinvested from majority-Black neighborhoods, and development oriented toward wealthy residents have excluded Black people from the city’s economic resurgence and from opportunities to build intergenerational wealth. Unless we begin creating policy that builds equity for Black people and dismantles these exclusionary policies and practices, DC will continue to limit the opportunities available to its Black residents.
To better understand the policies that segregated Washington, DC, and how to combat them, we explored the dynamics of segregation in the city with three DC-based changemakers: George Derek Musgrove, historian and coauthor of Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital; Stephanie Sneed, director of the Fund for Black-Led Change at the Meyer Foundation; and Vaughn Perry, director of equity for Building Bridges Across the River’s 11th Street Bridge Park project.
During our wide-ranging discussion, we touched on the policies that have led to racial segregation in DC, how we can move forward, and innovative ways to protect and ensure economic stability for all DC residents. What follows are four takeaways about how to combat the legacy of segregation in the nation’s capital.
The History of Racialized Policies That Have Led to Segregation in DC Must Be Confronted
The changemakers cited specific policies that have led to DC’s current racially segregated landscape. As Musgrove said, “Segregation is first and foremost a product of public policy, and we always have to remember that.”
Musgrove highlighted housing and economic-development policies as key means by which segregation has been perpetuated in DC. These policies include discriminatory lending by white-owned banks, misguided efforts of “urban renewal,” and racially restrictive covenants. As the city became majority Black in the 1960s, this legacy continued with the concentration of public housing east of the Anacostia River, disinvestment in communities in Wards 7 and 8, and policies designed to draw wealthier residents into the city for increased tax revenue.
Notably, “urban renewal” plans paved over majority-Black neighborhoods in Southwest DC with highways to white suburbs, spawning neighborhood protests and racial embitterment. According to Musgrove, “The destruction of Southwest pushed between 15,000 and 17,000 Black folks across the [Anacostia] River…and the movement of those people into the area [occurred] at the same time that the city made a conscious decision to concentrate all of its new public housing East of the River.”
Black activists and their allies in the city have led the charge against such segregationist policies. Musgrove cites the 1975 Burner v. Washington case, in which Anacostia residents sued the city and the federal government for underinvesting in their neighborhoods. Although the residents lost the case, Musgrove said “they were on the right track.”
More recently, gentrification efforts intended to raise tax revenue have increased segregation in DC. Musgrove says the city intentionally adopted gentrifying policies to balance the budget. Under Mayor Williams in the early 2000s, the city began catering to high- and middle-income households to bring them back to DC. The city couldn’t tax federal property or wealthy white people who fled to the suburbs, many of whom still worked in the city, making its tax base very small, according to Musgrove. The success of these policies, along with the national pattern of wealthy residents moving back into the cities they had abandoned, meant that the cost of living in the city skyrocketed. As Musgrove said, “We’ve been bleeding poor people into [Maryland’s] Prince George’s County because they can’t afford to live in the city anymore.”
Policies Meant to Address Segregation Are Falling Short
The changemakers emphasized that policies are still driving racial and economic segregation in DC. Sneed said, “People look at the history and think ‘What we're going through right now is solely a consequence of decades and years of disinvestment or policies.’ But policies that are happening right now are actually still creating these same dynamics.”
This ongoing legacy is evident in the city’s current approach to affordable housing. In 2019, the Bowser administration signed the Housing Framework for Equity and Growth to distribute affordable housing more equitably throughout the city. The framework aims to inform how to equitably increase housing production in the city. It acknowledges that the city’s affordable housing is unevenly distributed, with the majority of units located in the far-southeast and far-southwest areas.
Musgrove said this framework is a step in the right direction, noting that the Bowser administration’s plan is to shift the distribution of low-income housing to the wealthier parts of the city. He said the administration’s close relationship with developers, however, has hindered the policy’s execution. According to Musgrove, developers have been given too many exemptions to circumvent the city’s low-income-housing mandates, such as inclusionary zoning requirements. He sees this as contrary to the role the administration is supposed to play: “The city's job is to manipulate the market to serve the needs of the citizenry, not to serve the bottom line of the developers.”
Sneed agrees and added that the relationship between developers and councilmembers can weaken the administration’s fidelity to its plan for equity in affordable housing. “The closeness of the administration, particularly in the housing committee, with developers in the city really just lets them produce the housing that they want to produce anyway,” she said.
Sneed also added that the city has underperformed when creating affordable housing for residents with the lowest incomes. An external audit of the Housing Production Trust Fund found the city was overproducing housing that was affordable to residents who made 80 percent of the area median income (AMI) and underproducing housing that was affordable to residents who made 0 to 30 percent of the AMI.
Perry said the underproduction of housing at the level of 0 to 30 percent of the AMI will disproportionately harm residents in Wards 7 and 8: “When we start to talk about what affordable housing really means, the first question that I get is, ‘Affordable for who?’ If we're going off of the AMI, the last I checked…60 percent [of the AMI] is $65,000 to $70,000 for a family of four, when the last I checked the average income in some Ward 8 communities is $25,000 to $30,000. The majority of residents in Ward 8 are renters. They are the ones that are more at risk of getting displaced simply because they don't have ownership in their homes, and they're at the will of those landlords.”
By failing to prioritize the needs of the residents with the lowest incomes, DC continues to perpetuate segregation. “If we are looking to integrate those communities, then what happens is folks get displaced…because those communities are just too expensive now,” Perry said.
Combating Segregation Is about Restoring Choice
White supremacy, segregation, and racism in the United States have deprived Black families of the luxury of choice. Discussions around desegregation and incentivizing moves to wealthier neighborhoods can unconsciously reinforce that lack of choice.
On this matter, Perry said, “What was the underlying root cause within segregation? It was removing choice from Black and Brown communities. They weren't allowed to purchase homes in certain neighborhoods, or they weren't allowed to take advantage of certain services because of the color of their skin. And so, away from trying to necessarily integrate these communities, how do we make sure that we are putting the power of choice and the power in access to these resources back into the hands of these Black and Brown communities?”
Perry referenced THRIVE East of the River, a program through which 500 families living east of the Anacostia River were given $5,500 to weather the pandemic. Perry said participants were shocked there were no strings attached to the cash: “The power of choice, right? You're not telling them what they have to spend it on, how they have to spend it? When they want to spend? The power of choice is so liberating…$5,500 might not seem like a lot of money to some of us, but it's just a godsend to a lot of folks.” Unconditional-cash-transfer programs can give Black residents the resources to choose where they want to live. This choice may be to move to a predominately white neighborhood or stay in a predominately Black one. True desegregation would mean both are viable options.
Washington, DC, Can Address Its History of Segregation by Redistributing Wealth and Resources
The response to DC’s history of segregation cannot be to simply create opportunities for Black residents to move into white neighborhoods. It also must address the fact that segregation paved the way for the city’s current economic boom. Sneed said, “Particularly for long-time Washingtonians, who stayed around through the ’90s, who were here and really have seen this roller coaster ride, who want to still stay in their city, and they're seeing new development and they're wondering why it's not being built for them, so really opening the door to that, as well as really prioritizing the fact that we want to get rid of poverty, and to me, you know that looks like giving people money just flat out.”
Determining the details for accomplishing this goal equitably is complicated. Discussing the Douglass Community Land Trust, a resident-led housing organization focused on long-term affordability, Perry noted a tension between keeping places affordable and creating wealth. “We created the Douglass Community Land Trust. It limits the amount of wealth creation that homeowners can take advantage of. Creating affordability and wealth creation is about finding a sweet spot,” he said. “How do we do it in a way for folks that may own homes so they can start to gain generational wealth like a bunch of other folks that don’t look like them have for hundreds of years? What’s the perfect balance between affordability and generational wealth?”
The changemakers agree that the tension between creating wealth for people who have traditionally been locked out of wealth-building opportunities and ensuring that wealth-building strategies like ownership remain affordable to all is critical. And as Sneed noted, “We can’t rely on the private market to shift housing policy and economic realities for Black people.”Organizing and crafting policies such as guaranteed income, reparations, and redistribution is crucial for holistically responding to the damage that the city and nation’s history of segregation has caused in Black communities.
As Perry said, “I want my 40 acres and a mule with compound interest…You owe us.”
Asch, Myers Chris, and George Derek Musgrove. Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
- Details the history of segregation and Black-led activism in Washington, DC.
Darity Jr., William A., and A. Kirsten Mullen. From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020.
- Provides a comprehensive case for economic reparations for descendants of slavery in the United States.
Kijakazi, Kilolo, Rachel Marie Brooks Atkins, Mark Paul, Anne E. Price, Darrick Hamilton, and William A. Darity Jr. The Color of Wealth in the Nation’s Capital. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2016.
- Explores racial and ethnic differences in net worth, focusing on Black families in Washington, DC, and shows how discrimination and systemic racism have contributed to today’s wealth gap in the nation’s capital.
Mapping Segregation in Washington, DC. “Home.” Accessed June 15, 2021. https://mappingsegregationdc.org/.
- Offers a detailed history of segregation in DC. Includes neighborhood maps of racial covenants in the city.
Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. “A Right to the City: How Washingtonians Have Shaped and Reshaped Their Neighborhoods in Extraordinary Ways.” February 28, 2020. https://storymaps.arcgis.com/collections/34d99cccb2c5454da7b4f08e482c1987?item=1.
- Digital exhibit that details the history of neighborhood organizing in DC.